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Thousands gather in D.C. for second March for Life since fall of Roe

Abortion opponents attend the annual March for Life rally on the National Mall on Friday in Washington. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)
7 min

With an overturned Roe v. Wade drifting further into the past, antiabortion advocates tromping along snowy Washington streets Friday for the March for Life described finding new unity in two things: the need to do more for pregnant people and the need to again support Donald Trump for president.

Thousands gathered on the National Mall for the annual event, as they have for five decades, a mix of families, students from Christian high schools and universities, clerics, advocates and lawmakers. But during this year’s gathering — the second since the fall of Roe, which in 1973 had legalized abortion nationwide — abortion opponents were trying to find their path toward making more gains.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June 2022 that overturned Roe left the decision on abortion restrictions up to individual states, and about two dozen states have passed strict legislation.

Some march participants said they had thought that the ruling would result in a change of heart in the country around abortion and that they were disappointed. Others are hoping for a federal abortion ban. Still others want the focus to be on limiting abortion pills, which are used for more than half of all terminated pregnancies and have become a key way to maintain abortion access in states with new bans.

What came up repeatedly among March for Life participants is the need for the movement to do much more to support people facing unplanned pregnancies, as well as the need to set aside hesitations about Trump, who has declined to endorse a national abortion ban and called strict state prohibitions “terrible."

Friday’s march followed the Iowa caucuses, which Trump swept Monday with 51 percent of the vote.

“It will not sway my vote because of who he appointed for the Supreme Court,” Jenn Lee, 46, the associate director of South Dakota Right to Life, said of Trump’s stance on a national ban. “He won us over with that so I’d feel secure voting for him.” She was referring to Trump’s appointment of three of the five justices who voted to overturn Roe.

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Lee, who had an unplanned pregnancy in her early 20s, lives in a state with a near-total ban. But she worries about people there who are still able to access abortion pills through the mail.

She said that the next step the antiabortion movement should take is showing support for pregnant people, parents and babies. She wants people to know about crisis pregnancy centers and to know they have options other than abortion.

“Once women get past the fear and realize there’s hope, [abortion] should be the last option available. It should be the worst-case scenario,” she said. “And that’s something Democrats and Republicans used to agree on.”

Colin Meersman, 18, said he supports Trump, despite his suspicions that the former president is not “pro-life through and through.”

When Trump addressed the March for Life in 2020 — the first president to speak at the annual event — Meersman said he felt “empowered” and “backed up.” It’s a feeling he won’t ever forget, he said.

Annette Escala, a teacher of Meersman’s who traveled with him from Cumming, Ga., said she is willing to overlook some of the disparaging comments Trump has made about abortion restrictions, including the six-week ban in her home state.

“He’s a politician,” she said. “I think sometimes people just say what they need to say.” Actions are what matter, she added.

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Mary Kay Bobos, 73, has been coming to Washington for the annual March for Life since the 1990s, and she had hoped after Trump’s presidency and the overturning of Roe that Americans would come to the same conclusion she did so long ago: that choosing abortion was choosing death. But on Friday morning, she said things haven’t changed as much as she thought they might.

“It would be wonderful if there was a national ban, but it’s not going to happen in our lifetime,” Bobos said. “I was just hoping that somehow people would develop that regard for life, appreciation for life.”

Antiabortion groups gathered in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19 for the annual March for Life, two years after Roe v. Wade was overturned. (Video: The Washington Post)

She mentioned that even Trump has been waffling. Still, Bobos, of Noblesville, Ind., said he may well be her candidate.

“I don’t want to vote for Trump, but I might have to,” she said of the Republican front-runner.

Schools were closed across the D.C. region because of snow and low temperatures, and the weather resulted in a smaller-than-usual March for Life.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, one of the country’s largest antiabortion organizations, said participation for the event has been a concern for many leading abortion opponents since Roe was overturned. Last year, Hawkins said, her group estimated that turnout was a lot lower than it had been before the decision, she said.

“A lot of people have been saying, ‘We need to stay local, because the decision has been returned to the states,’” Hawkins said. But they need to realize that there is still far more to do at the federal level, she added, emphasizing the importance of the 2024 elections that will determine who wins the presidency, as well as both chambers of Congress.

“The battle is at all levels right now,” she said.

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Among those who addressed the crowd at the pre-march rally was House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who said that his parents were teenagers when his mother unexpectedly became pregnant with him.

He said that opposition to abortion is connected to the values of the nation’s founders. Marchers, he said, “are a beautiful picture of America … all joining to celebrate life and what it means to be an American.”

What makes the country great, Johnson said, is its creed, laid out in the Declaration of Independence. “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ — not ‘born’ but ‘created.’ That’s what the founders said.”

Although much of the public debate has focused on a federal abortion ban, some antiabortion activists privately acknowledge that such legislation would be extremely difficult to pass, even if Republicans win the presidency and both houses of Congress in November. That’s why some leaders in the movement are far more focused on actions that a conservative president could take to crack down on abortion pills. Hawkins, of Students for Life, told The Washington Post in a recent interview that she is optimistic that Trump would fill key agency roles with allies of the antiabortion movement.

Multiple speakers at the march and related events this week talked about a need to support people facing unplanned pregnancies, and to answer common criticism that the movement is more focused on stopping abortion than on helping those who don’t abort, and their children.

“More than anything, we must continue to serve,” Arlington Bishop Michael Burbidge told a standing-room-only Mass on Thursday at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Northeast Washington. “The needs of mothers and babies are dynamic, and we must be dynamic, too. The work we do in pregnancy centers around the country is at the center of our mission.”

The Arlington Diocese changed its policies last year to offer employees eight weeks paid family leave for childbirth and other family needs. It also began allowing parents who experience a miscarriage to take 10 days of bereavement leave. Since the Dobbs decision, several Catholic organizations and dioceses have expanded parental leave policies, the Detroit Catholic reported last year in a story about the new Arlington policy.

Aisha Taylor, an author and activist who has written about her unplanned pregnancy with twins, told the crowd they need to step up for parents.

“There are so many people like me who need people like you.”